Tag Archives: Indian Politics

Death

Death is black

It is quick

It is slow

 

What does it taste like?

It’s like the salty tears

Which never stop flowing

 

It tastes like black soyabean

Which hungry children

Once ate

 

It’s in the mud

Which covers the graves

Of small bodies

 

It’s in the guttural cries

Of a wailing mother

And a stoic father

 

It smells like school books

Whose pages haven’t been turned

New, unused forever

 

It’s in an empty classroom

Where human life ceases to exist

And stray dogs sleep

 

It’s in a village

Which mourns the loss

Of its future

 

It’s in the empty playground

Where six friends once played

Now buried together

 

It’s in the eyes of a grandfather

It’s in the heart of a mother

And in the silence of a sister who cheated it

 

It’s in the green fields

And blue skies

And a pond which reflects everything

 

It’s in the apathy

And desensitization

Of the hordes who die, anyway

 

And the – oh, those poor children

So sad they died

It was somewhere in India, right?

 

———-

One month after the Mid Day Meal tragedy where 23 children died.

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Wash Away the Memories of the Post, Mr. Prime Minister

It is usually said that a confident person is never self conscious. I think the same can be applied to nations.

India is a developing nation. As it’s starting to play a bigger role on the world stage – demand for a seat in the UNSC; rejigging it’s foreign policies and playing a more active role in South East Asia and Africa; firming up strategic, political and economic relations with the Western economies and providing financial aid to many nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, there is a perceived shift in the image of India.

Its social indicators are improving but have some distance to cover to be comparable to the standards of advanced economies, its economic policies are being overhauled as new challenges come forth and its political class is been questioned. As the western world sees the rise of the country, it also sees its faults. While no nation is perfect, a constant media glare highlights the gaps as much as it lauds the country.

Traditionally, the English language media of USA and UK have played important roles in providing news and informing readers and audiences all over the world. They have also been opinion and image makers. Such is the deferential attitude allocated to such media that its reportage (albeit from a western prism) is seen as an all important truth. Its critical news stories are seen as a fall of a nation from the world stage, a dent to one’s carefully cultivated image. The reasons are simple – they set the agenda for the rest to follow, high social media penetration in the West means this information gets relayed many times, leading it to becoming an obvious truth.

Strikingly, no English language news organization from the East is as powerful that the flow of information may be reversed, that it would set an agenda for rest to follow, without accusations of misinformation. And therein lies India’s current problem and its government’s inability to digest criticism from an article in the Washington Post.

Yes the Prime Minister was criticized in unflattering terms. But as an Indian, I don’t disagree with the conclusions drawn by the article. Two of India’s leading magazines India Today and Outlook have come out with issues this week criticizing the government and the Prime Minister.

A good leader takes the criticism and learns from it and moves on, moves forward. The job of his media advisor should not be to, so ridiculously and childishly, to demand to post a reply in the comments section of the newspaper or complain via a letter. His job should be to not respond to the article at all.

There is no need for the Prime Minister’s office to leap up in defense. The American President was a lead story for a Time magazine article some time ago. There was an unflattering review of his policies, highlighting his failures. Did the American government’s PR machinery come out with a scathing reply? No. While I am not saying that America is the gold standard to everything, there are better ways in which PR disasters can be handled. I am sure Mr. Pachauri has better things to do than answer to any and every article written by Western media outlets.

The cardinal rule of strategic communication is to never give the opposition leverage, an upper hand. The second is to accept that in a time where there is online access to information and its multiplication through social media, information and opinions cannot be controlled.

Instead of responding and giving more fodder, a quiet introspection would have been better. It’s time India and its leaders accept that this not the time to be self-conscious about its image being tarnished (by just one article in a foreign newspaper), to imagine perceived slights, to be so sensitive to such criticism. It’s time for the Indian government to learn from this, have a better and stronger strategic communications system, a change in its economic policies, a leader who is assertive. I think 2014 will see the end of Manmohan Singh’s political career. He has about one and a half years left. He should make it count. That, instead, would be a fitting reply.

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Rise of the Hindu Right Wing: Godhra Verdict Should Be a Deterrent

A few years ago when I was at university abroad, I worked on a research project on Muslims stereotyping in TV news. For my research I interviewed a cross section of people in India asking them about their opinion about the Godhra riots and the subsequent news coverage. I mostly got blank faces and mumbles as replies to my questions. People were afraid to voice their opinions despite assurances of anonymity. The most common excuse being, “I really don’t know what happened there.” Which was surprising, to say the least.

It was in 2002 when I woke up one day to read the news that some Hindu activists had died in an arson incident in a train. A few days later, the revenge brigade was ready, allegedly led by Hindu right wing groups like VHP, Bajrang Dal and the state machinery.

In what I consider one of the darkest moments of a modern democratic India, I saw genocide unfolding in front of my eyes, Muslims killed for being Muslims. I read horror stories of foetus being ripped from the womb of a pregnant woman, a group of people killed in an apartment block, families wiped out. Those three days of horror and alleged complicity of the state machinery were a dent to India’s secularism and sovereignty.

And since then every time I have tried to defend India and said that it’s a democratic country with secularism entrenched firmly, the Godhra incident has been the answer for those with opposing opinions, those disillusioned by the very pillars of the system which helped spurn such terror. Seemingly, I have never had a fitting reply.

Today’s verdict of the trial court means, I can say that the system works. Even if it has been abused by those religious majority in positions of power, they have been shown their place by the same system. When the accused awarded a sentence are a former minister, political leaders and other important people, it means something.

I am sure they will appeal. The case will go to High Court, maybe the Supreme Court. There will be many years before a final verdict comes along. But a good start is the key, a deterrent to others who may want to indulge in sectarian violence. As a friend says, “there will be many challenges ahead.”

The state of Gujarat is due for elections this year. The BJP government looks all set to come back to power. I am not sure if today’s verdict will cause any damage, given that it has come back to power twice after that brutal carnage. I hope it dent’s Narendra Modi’s chance of becoming the next Prime Minister if not the Chief Minister. I hope we can truly say we are democratic, one day.

While we are at it, I hope 1984 will not be forgotten. After all if one politico-religious set of people have to swallow the bitter pill, why shouldn’t the Congress?

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Maybe the People Have Spoken

The people have spoken. Actions, words and more. In my last post, I had expressed a concern that the movement would be hijacked by political parties and Team Anna’s issue would be sidelined.

Since then, I have seen a steady growth of people joining the movement. Each passing day, more and more people have gathered on the streets, sloganeered, waved the Indian flag and demanded that government address the issue of corruption.

Note, that I say, corruption and not the lokpal bill.

To get a sense of what the man on the street was thinking, I decided to head to the Ramlila ground (the site of hunger strike) and spent a day photographing and talking to people.

Madam, yeh (Anna) jo kar rahe hain naa, bahut aacha hai,” said the auto rickshaw driver to me as he took me to the ground. When I asked him why, he said that he was fed up of corruption. That he wanted the Transport authority to not ask for a bribe when someone purchased a rickshaw. According to him, buying a rick costs around Rs. 150,000 and then getting it registered (there is a cap of 50,000 ricks on Delhi streets), the transport authority has a going rate of Rs. 450,000. And because he had already participated in the protests, he decided that he would take me by the meter, not overcharge and drop me off to the nearest point.

I entered the Ramlila ground with some trepidation. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to see a cross section of the society at the grounds. There were people from villages rubbing shoulders with CEOs, women who had brought small children in prams, wizened old men,conservative women with their heads covered in pallu,  office going men and women, urban young and rural young. To see all these people together in one place, supporting the same cause has been unparalleled in the last twenty years.

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India faces many challenges. With its diversity come various different issues. These small battles are fought at a local level with local support. In fact, I living in Delhi, would not even care about the Telangana issue or someone in Maharashtra would even bother if AFSPA was affecting people in Kashmir or North East. That’s the level of disconnect in one single country. So yes, to see a mass of humanity (out of this 1.2 billion population), coming together for a cause, is unprecedented.

The people that I spoke to, necessarily did not understand the nitty-gritties of the lokpal bill, they only understood that this was a ‘fight against corruption’.  For them the simple message was that there is a civil group which has asked the government to pass a certain bill called lokpal which will deter corruption and the government is opposed to it.

To most people it is unclear how the bill will solve the problem but since everyone has had to deal with corruption or bribery, they know that they are supposed to support Anna’s movement.

But how did the Anna Team (henceforth called the A-Team) achieve this? And why are alternative voices angry?

There are two main reasons for that. The A-Team consists of people who have been part of the system, who have seen blatant corruption, some who have stayed in the system and innovatively circumvented situations presented to them, some who have stayed in the system and handled tricky situations for the government. The illustrious list includes a motley crew of  civil rights activists, former civil servant,  law minister, top police official, a former media man and spiritual leaders. People not connected to the cause because of language, region or religion. Fighting for something which every Indian understands.

The core group understands how a government functions. I can assume that each member has pitched in with his or her area of expertise, a map detailing how to proceed and which pitfalls to look out for, working in tandem with each other. Almost like a corporate sector project. And very much unlike how the ‘system’ works.

The second key factor for the success of the group is a well formulated communication strategy. I have been amazed to see their foresight in planning the media campaign. A swanky website which gives all the information in the most precise manner and use of social media for the urban i-phone toting masses. They even have an official song on you tube! They organize rallies online, use the TV to make these announcements. The group has milked the broadcast media to get their point across. Members of this group tirelessly do the rounds of all national Hindi and English language channels every night. They hold press conferences at the Ramlila ground in the evening, so the juicy sound bytes are ready for the prime time news. They hold processions in open top caravans. Provide the best pictures for broadcast and print media. The 24X7 channels, the screaming newspaper headlines, the social media have built up such a frenzy that people can’t ignore the message. Or the re-enforcement of the message again and again.

And so, the ‘war’ is being fought not just behind the camera, in negotiations with the government but also in front of the camera.

So it doesn’t matter what the  jan lokpal bill or the govenment lokpal bill says. The people think that 1. The jan lokpal bill will reduce corruption 2. The government has no will to solve the problem 3. Anna Hazare, hailed as the new Gandhi was put into jail because the government thinks it can get away with anything 4. His fast and the people pressure will lead to passing of the bill 5. It has suddenly become very ‘cool’ go out for a protest and it’s very ‘in’ to hold the tricolour and shout anti-government slogans.

The alternative voices have been extremely unhappy that the A-Team has taken the government hostage. But I suspect, they are more upset because the Indian masses never came out of their own free will to support the causes of these men and women, as someone just said to me – “a case of sour grapes”.

The policewala that I was speaking to last evening, stood with me as we watched hundreds and thousands of men, women and children pour into the Ramlila ground. We were discussing if either one of us had even seen so many people come together. The answer was no. He pointed out that political rallies did have around 50,000 people. But sheepishly added, Madam woh toh baadhe key log hote hain. Yahan toh log apni families lekar aaye hain. Look at the number of women and children. And they are all marching so purposefully and peacefully. I could only nod in agreement. With a silent hope that this might be the start of a new India.

My balloon of optimism was pricked a few hours later when the auto rickshaw wala on my back back yesterday wanted to charge me double of what it costs. I angrily told him, yahan log brashtachar key khilaf lad rahe hain aur aap manmaani kar rahe ho. He shrugged his shoulders.  I walked a kilometer to where my car was parked.

Realistically speaking, one bill can’t change the situation. It can help facilitate the process but can’t change it entirely. The change has to come in the attitude of the people who think bribing is the easiest way out of the situation, from the government servant who is willing to push files without the extra chai paani, for the cop who is willing to solve a crime even if there is no monetary incentive and importantly, the corporate sector and the top bureaucrats who should pledge to close deals without kickbacks.

Afterall, India has lived too long with the pessimism that things won’t change.

Maybe this time, the people really have spoken.

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